Monday, August 25, 2008

An Innocent Soldier

Holub, Josef. 2005. An Innocent Soldier. New York: Arthur A. Levine. ISBN 0439627729.

PLOT SUMMARY

The year is 1812, and Napoleon is gathering his Grande Armée for an assault on Russia. When a privileged farmer’s son is sought as a new recruit, the farmer sends his unwitting farmhand, Adam, to serve in his stead. The poor servant boy is exposed to grueling conditions –depravity, deprivation, and the horrors of war as he struggles to survive the ordeal and make sense of it all.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS

An Innocent Soldier is a historical fiction novel best suited for a YA audience due to its mature subject matter. The book is the 2006 winner of the Mildred Batchelder Award for an outstanding children's book first published in a foreign language. The story by Josef Holub and translated from German by Michael Hofmann, tells the story of Napoleon's grand march to Russia and subsequent retreat, through the eyes of an uneducated, though not unintelligent, teenaged farmboy, Adam. Betrayed by his master and forced to substitute for the master's son, Adam travels with the army through the Germanic Kingdoms, Prussia and Poland and finally to Moscow itself. French spellings (Armée and troupe) are scattered throughout the text to remind the reader that Adam has been thrust into a foreign army, while the names of the soldiers in his troop are indicative of Adam's home in Wurttemburg (Konrad Klara, Kleinknecht, Krauter). Adam tells the story in a kind of musing format, with sparse dialogue. "On the street lies an upset barrel. Thousands of kopek pieces have spilled onto the dirt. What riches! But no one is interested. If only it were bread. What would we do with metal coin?" This format suits his position and condition; an innocent farmhand assigned as a lieutenant's servant in a cold, miserable, and eventually pointless military campaign.

Although set amidst a tragic military campaign, the overriding theme of Soldier is one of friendship. Through shared hardships, Adam becomes the friend and confidant of the noble-born, Konrad Klara, and becomes respected in his own right. Ironically, Adam receives succor from an elderly Russian woman, and his greatest enemy is a sadistic member of his own regiment, underscoring the perplexities of war and the transforming power it has over human nature.

The story of An Innocent Soldier is timely despite its 1812 setting. The weapons, tactics, and adversaries may change, but the moral questions of war remain constant throughout the years. Young teens should relate to Adam as he grows in maturity and overcomes adversity. A period map and historical notes precede the book.

REVIEW EXCERPTS

"Arthur A, Levine Books has been awarded the 2006 Mildred L, Batchelder Award for its publication of An Innocent Soldier, The award is given for the most outstanding children's book originally published in a foreign language and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States, The book was written by Josef Holub, translated from the German version by Michael Hofmann."

2006. "Mildred L. Batchelder Award." Teacher Librarian 33, no. 4: 12-12. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).

"This is a well-wrought psychological tale that might have a difficult time finding an audience, but has a lot to offer to those seeking to build a deep historical fiction collection."

Stenson-Carey, Christina, Jones, Trevelyn E., Toth, Luann, Charnizon, Marlene, Grabarek, Daryl, and Dale Raben. 2005. "An Innocent Soldier." School Library Journal 51, no. 12: 148-148. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 7, 2007).

CONNECTIONS

This book is an obvious choice for an integrated curriculum based on this period in history. The rich historical details of daily wartime struggles can add life to the study of this era.

Though it may be a difficult sell because of its unappealing cover art (Adam appears too feminine and childlike to be a battle-weary soldier, and Konrad Klara appears more as an "add-on" than an integral part of the cover *), this book has great possibilities for a book discussion group. The themes of friendship, war, and morality are sure to engage older teens.
Read Thura's Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq (2004) by Thura al-Windawi for a view of the current war through the eyes of a teen.

* since I first reviewed this book, an alternative cover has been designed

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